The Olympic protests and nationalism – a Marxist response

In a dazzling pre-Olympic balancing act, the Chinese regime has announced talks with the ‘evil’ Dalai Lama side

chinaworker.infoAt the same time state media is booming out ‘friendship’ towards France and using police measures to extinguish anti-Western protests (same pattern as 2005 anti-Japan protests).

The latest government u-turns will produce crisis among the nationalist youth, and possible sharp exchanges also among Tibetan groups – depending what further concessions their leaders make to Beijing. Basically, the talks will achieve little, but will be used by the regime to buy time, gain a breathing space for the Olympics to take place. The position of socialists towards the exile Tibetan leaders is clear: we criticise their lack of socialist policies, emphasis on deals with capitalist governments (including Beijing) and failure to turn to Han Chinese workers with a class appeal for joint struggle. Still, we defend their right to campaign politically, protest etc., and oppose repression. But for Beijing, the Dalai Lama was a “wolf in monk’s robes” only weeks ago and blamed (laughably) for personally masterminding the worldwide protests. In the minds of nationalist youth, the regime’s 180 degree turn is the equivalent of president Bush inviting bin Laden for talks! The Chinese nationalist youth will now get to taste “Tibetan” medicine – their protests will be banned and there websites blocked. If they persist, they’ll feel the police on their collar!

China is experiencing a wave of nationalism. Rather than a ‘spontaneous’ outpouring of popular feeling, this has been mainly orchestrated by the regime and the state-run media to create a shield around itself in the run-up to the Olympics. The nightmare scenario for the regime is the coming together of myriad local protest movements over land grabs, pollution, police repression, and the worst inflation for 12 years. The Olympics could provide a focal point for anti-government protests to converge into a single national movement. Therefore the regime seized upon the Tibetan events, helped by the partly racist character of attacks on Han and Hui civilians, and through mass media saturation has been able to whip up pro-regime nationalism. When the international Olympic protests took place, it repeated this feat, portraying the protests as an attack, an attempt to “shame” China and sabotage the Olympics.

The Chinese regime implies – falsely – that the Olympic protests are led by powerful hostile forces, media and governments. As we have explained, the capitalists abroad do not seek confrontation with the CCP regime, they want good – above all profitable – relations. Police forces outside China have arrested several hundred Tibetan protesters and their supporters, to win favour with Beijing and ‘protect’ the billion-dollar Olympic trademark. The boss of Carrefour has issued a grovelling apology to the CCP regime, assuring them his company does not support any “illegal organisations” in China (a term which covers everything not under CCP control). These events expose the hypocrisy of the capitalists internationally and their symmetry of interests with the CCP regime – together they constitute a huge ‘joint venture’ to exploit the working class, but one that denies its existence: both big business in the West and the Beijing regime want to hide their role in exploiting workers and the environment.

Of course there are national tensions between the capitalists, which have also surfaced in the course of these events, and can in future turn into serious conflicts. The capitalist economy is based on nation states, which despite the process of globalisation are a fundamental line of defence (economic and even military) for each capitalist class. But on all sides right now there are efforts to cool the situation. Sarkozy – with the French capitalists breathing down his neck – has invited Jin Jing to come to France and ‘apologised’ for the Paris protests.

There is a division between those capitalist politicians that are in opposition (Clinton, Obama, the French ‘Socialists’ like Delanöe, the BJP in India) and those in office (Bush, Sarkozy, Manmohan Singh). Governing parties, which are forced to act in the best interests of capital, are for ‘peace’ with Beijing, and do not protest over the repression in Tibet or elsewhere. The opposition politicians meanwhile can fish for votes by attacking the Chinese regime and its anti-democratic practises, knowing that this does not affect actual policy. Once they are elected to office, they too convert to a position of ‘constructive engagement’ (read: business) with Beijing. And whatever soft verbal criticism they might raise, these politicians must be judged by their actions – always seeking new business deals with China. This fundamental fact – that the international Olympic protests are not led or supported by the ruling classes – is misunderstood or ignored by those (small) sections of the Chinese and international left that wrongly see the surge of nationalist sentiment inside China as something ‘progressive’ or ‘anti-capitalist’.

These events are an important test for Marxists. Let’s be clear about the social i.e. class basis of the current nationalist mood. It is mainly a reactionary pro-establishment mood. The regime has been able to mobilise support among the urban middle classes and students, the layers that dominate discussion on the internet, and are closest to the regime. The voice of the most oppressed layers – workers and poor peasants – is hardly heard in this debate. Of course workers can also be affected by these moods given the overwhelming media campaign and lack of any alternative on view. So it was also in the US, after 9/11 – support for Bush soared to 80% in opinion polls. Five years later, Bush had become the most unpopular president since Nixon (who was forced to resign in 1974).

It is clear that many ordinary people in China, including workers, identify with the general mood that the Western media is biased and ‘anti-China’. There is no denying this bias anymore than the bias in the Chinese press. Rather than ‘neutral’ or ‘objective’, the news media in all class societies reflects the outlook of the ruling class and is selective with the facts. But the main core of the protests inside China are made up of pro-capitalist and nationalistic layers – with the heavy hand of the state not far away. This is a movement without clear demands (apart from calling for an ‘apology’). And because it is a blind, direction-less outpouring of emotion it is easier for the regime to manipulate. Having said this, it can still spin out of control. According to one poll, 66% of people in ten cities support the boycott of French companies. It would be wrong to regard these layers as a single reactionary mass. For some, undoubtedly, the current outrage against foreign media and politicians is a symptom of a much deeper, more generalised discontent (not least against price hikes) and the feeling that China has opened up “too much” to foreign capital. For some of the youth who took part in the Carrefour protests – in around 20 cities on 19-20 April – the rare chance to go onto the streets in numbers was probably as important a factor as the issue itself. It would be completely wrong to view all the participants as hardened nationalists or regime loyalists. Nevertheless, we must understand which layer is setting the tone – and the politics of this layer is reactionary.

Nationalists and most bourgeois commentators interpret everything in terms of a single uniform national entity. Marxists reject this as a false, undialectical way of posing things. Instead of ‘one’ unified China, or France, or USA, there is a furious class struggle taking place inside these societies. We approach every political problem with this class perspective to the fore – explaining which class forces in China, or France, are doing what and why. Concepts such as ‘China’s Olympics’ or ‘French support for Tibet’ are misleading and false because they lump together the migrant worker with the Lenovo director, or a striking French train driver with a minister in Sarkozy’s government. The ‘attack’ on the torch in Paris was not the action of Sarkozy or the French capitalists – they were as embarrassed and shocked by this (counting the cost to their China trade) as the Beijing regime. The action of CNN or BBC in showing the protests and striking a critical tone towards the Chinese regime’s policies in Tibet (after a decade of one-sided and sycophantic propaganda about the economic “miracle”) reflects the pressure upon the capitalists in the West – that their ‘joint venture’ with the CCP dictatorship will be exposed before the masses. To show their ‘independence’ from Beijing, the capitalist politicians and news outlets cannot condemn the protests too openly (although they are beginning to do this now in the face of a clear threat to their profits). Socialists point out these class realities. We show that the policies of the CCP are not in defence of the ‘Chinese people’, but in defence of the 1% who control over 40% of the national wealth, obtained through large scale and systematic theft from the vast majority.

A dangerous game

In this crisis, the Chinese regime is not acting from a position of strength – there is a big element of desperation, a gamble. Once conjured into life, nationalist spirits are hard to control. The regime is already trying to diffuse the anti-Carrefour movement. State media is now rushing to the French company’s defence, explaining that 95 percent of the products sold by Carrefour in China are produced domestically. Editorials are being written to defend “reform and opening” and warning against “over-the-top nationalism” [China Daily, 23 April]. France was anyway chosen as a soft target for the protests. According to the organisers’ own logic, targeting US products and companies would have been more justified. After all, US Democrats have made far more critical noises over Tibet and China than their French counterparts, and the Dalai Lama is currently touring the US where he met a top Bush aide. But a boycott of US companies (including Olympic sponsors such as Coca Cola and McDonald’s) would be a different matter altogether, especially in the middle of US presidential elections. This would be like a ‘nuclear bomb’ in trade terms – risking US politicians calling for counteraction against Chinese goods. France sent exports worth 101 billion yuan to China in 2007, while the US sent exports worth 454 billion yuan. But the US imported goods from China worth five times this amount – over 2 trillion yuan! So, it is hardly accidental that the US has so far slipped under the nationalists’ radar. With its economic crisis deepening and protectionist sentiment rising in the US, an ‘anti-US’ campaign on the lines of the ‘boycott France’ campaign could tip the balance into a full-blown trade war, relegating the Olympics to a minor footnote.

This explains the CCP’s attempts to de-escalate the Olympic crisis. But events in the outside world – such as the Dalai Lama’s coming visit to Germany and the decision of Paris politicians to make him an ‘honorary citizen’ – can make this extremely difficult. They presumably plan to close down the internet debate once the torch has reached ‘safe ground’ in China itself. In the meantime they are pursuing a delicate balancing act, using the pro-Olympic and anti-Tibet fervour to counterbalance the effect of anti-Olympic protests and give the impression the regime is ‘winning’ this trial of strength. But it is a path fraught with danger. If the regime shows weakness towards the French government, for example, it can itself become the target for nationalist accusations of ‘betrayal’.

Much can happen between now and the August games. Marxists will continue to expose the hypocrisy of the capitalist elites on all sides and explain our international socialist alternative. In this way we can make gains as the ‘opium’ of nationalism begins to wear off and the real world – low wages, food shortages, state repression – re-imposes itself upon popular consciousness.

We oppose the repression in Tibet, and link this to the attacks on workers and peasants throughout the country, while also defending Lenin’s position on the right to self-determination. The position of Lenin and Trotsky on this vital question is a crushing answer to those ‘lefts’ who have landed in the same camp as the CCP regime over the current crisis. Look also at the recent heroic role of the CWI section, United Socialist Party, in Sri Lanka, which in an actual war situation (over 4,000 killed last year) has stood against a wave of Sinhalese majority chauvinism and defended the rights of the Tamil minority, including the right to self-determination. The USP in Sri Lanka has this year recruited 300 Tamils in the impoverished, mainly Muslim, East of the island. Their principled position is a pole of attraction for the minorities, opening a socialist road (breaking the hold of bourgeois leaders) for these layers, and later, when conditions change, will open huge possibilities within the majority community too.

Olympic boycott?

Marxists are not calling for a boycott of the games, but that does not mean we ‘support’ the games either. We do not call for a boycott primarily because the initiative for such a stand must come from workers’ organisations, trade unions etc., inside the country concerned. This was the case when the ANC in South Africa called for an international boycott in the 1970s and 80s against the white dictatorship. For Marxists, a boycott campaign means workers’ organisations refusing to handle cargo or produce goods for export to a blacklisted regime. This would be an example of workers’ internationalism with the – crucial – support of the workers inside the blacklisted country. In this way it would raise consciousness, show the strength of working class organisation, and avoid the trap of nationalism and capitalist protectionism. A good recent example, on a local level, is the South African trade unions’ refusal to unload a cargo of Chinese armaments destined for the Mugabe dictatorship in Zimbabwe. Socialists do not call on capitalist politicians to stay away as a form of protest. They are not representatives of our class! For workers, it makes no difference if Bush and Sarkozy go to Beijing or not (US and French workers would prefer them to stay in Beijing forever – but that would not be fair to the Chinese working class!). Their attendance or absence will in no way change the policies they pursue and rather creates the illusion that they are for ‘change’ in China (they do want change: more economic liberalism, but absolutely not democratic change in the interests of the masses).

While not advocating a boycott, we criticise the games as a colossal waste of money and a political (nationalist) platform for a regime that daily attacks the working class and the poor. The Olympics are like the ‘bread and circuses’ in ancient Rome (without the bread!), which were used to distract and pacify the masses. As has explained, this is above all a corporate profit-making spectacle, and the money (over 280 billion yuan) could be better spent on providing safe drinking water, rural hospitals, etc. Our criticism of the games is not a ‘new’ position for China 2008 – this was also our attitude in Australia 2000, Greece 2004 and previously.

Some readers have asked what is our attitude towards the Olympic protests? We defend the right to protest whether this is in Paris, Lhasa or Shanghai, and regardless of whether we support the policies of the protesters or not. We even defend the right of the anti-Carrefour demonstrators and will call for their release from detention if the regime’s efforts to rein them in go so far. This, despite the fact we completely distance ourselves from this confused and misled movement. As for the worldwide Olympic protests, we can’t give a blank cheque of support to all actions. It is not just a question of what is said, but who is saying it, and for what reasons. Those protests that are in support of the rights of the oppressed and do not use racist or chauvinist propaganda deserve support from working people everywhere. But as is clear from our material, we completely separate ourselves from the politicking of Clinton or other bourgeois politicians who have seized on the Beijing Olympics to further their own pro-business, anti-worker agenda.


The Tibetan events have shaken the CCP regime. The spread of the protests to outlying provinces – over 20,000 took part in disturbance in several areas of Sichuan – was completely unexpected by the regime but also by the exile Dalai Lama leadership. These events were driven by the same problems (poverty, unemployment, land grabs and other effects of capitalist policies) that have driven other protests across China, most recently in Yunnan and Hainan, involving Han, Miao and Li farmers. Poverty, even more than the issue of religious freedom, was the key factor behind the movement in Tibet. This doesn’t mean unfortunately that the Tibetan masses have come to socialist or even anti-capitalist conclusions at this stage. But under the blows being rained down upon these regions today, a layer will begin to draw revolutionary conclusions. Marxists try to assist this process of raising political consciousness, as among the Han workers and other detachments of the international working class. No solution is possible under capitalism and therefore a socialist struggle is needed, linking up with workers in other nations and regions. Our articles on the Olympic crisis have been published on some Uyghur and a Tibetan exile websites, which is a good beginning.

At this stage we do not call for ‘an independent socialist Tibet’, a position we put forward in Scotland for example (which has been part of the British state for 400 years). This would be running ahead of the situation in Tibet today. Even within the Tibetan population there is disagreement on this issue and attitudes to outright independence are hard to gauge. One thing is clear though: the policies and repression of the Chinese state are driving greater numbers into the independence camp. Marxists must show great sensitivity and flexibility in this area – our demands can change as the situation shifts. Trotsky in the late 1930s even raised the slogan of an independent socialist Ukraine – its separation from the Stalinist Soviet Union – because of the groundswell of nationalist feeling as a result of Stalin’s crimes, and the oppression of the Ukrainian minorities in capitalist Romania, Hungary and Poland. Trotsky explained that unless the national movement in the Ukraine was given a working class leadership and socialist direction, it risked being hi-jacked by imperialism and reaction. Under a socialist leadership the Ukrainian struggle could have become a motor for the political revolution against Stalinism throughout the Soviet Union. Trotsky’s position was of course held up as ‘proof’ by the Stalinists that he was ‘in league’ with Hitler and wanted to split the Soviet Union! (This, at a time when Stalin himself was involved in secret negotiations with Hitler’s regime).

At this stage, our main emphasis is to oppose the repression in Tibet and show how this is, and will be, used against all groups that struggle for real change. Until we have a clearer picture of the moods in Tibet, we confine ourselves to the ‘negative’ demand of the right to self-determination. We also show that independence would be doomed to poverty and failure on a capitalist basis. In general Marxists are for maximum economic integration and explain the huge benefits – under socialism – of large configurations over smaller ones. But this position cannot be imposed upon the peoples of Tibet, Scotland or other nationalities that have suffered oppression and discrimination. By defending the right of self-determination, in actions and not just in words as the case of Finland showed, Lenin and the Bolsheviks won the confidence of the vast majority of the oppressed nationalities of the former Tsarist empire. Without this approach the October Revolution would never have triumphed.